Why did you learn Latin?
Now and then, someone will ask me, “Why did you choose Latin?”
I’ve always been fascinated by history. When I was younger, I read avidly. For the most part, I read biographies. I particularly enjoyed the biographies of early American explorers and adventurers. I read the biographies Daniel Boone, David Crockett, and Lewis and Clark. These biographies introduced me to secondary characters, the men who influenced, and sometimes financed the explorers.
For example, by way of Lewis and Clark, I discovered Thomas Jefferson. Almost every American schoolchild memorizes the list of American presidents, so naturally, I knew the name of Thomas Jefferson. Beyond that, however, I knew little about the man. I read a biography of Thomas Jefferson, which, naturally, led me into the world of the American founding fathers. I discovered Patrick Henry, John Adams, Abigail Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Paine.
Biographies of the American founding fathers led me to the writings of the earlier colonists. I began reading the writings of Cotton Matter, Increase Mather, and William Bradford.
Further back, I discovered the journals of Christopher Columbus.
From there I worked my way back to European histories and writers. These days, I am buried in the stories of Rome and the Mediterranean world.
As I worked my way through the stories of the founding fathers, I discovered a constant theme. In their early educations, almost all of the famous men (and sometimes women) of the past learned Latin and Greek.
At first, I ignored this fact. It seemed a bit odd to me. I had never met anyone who knew Latin. As for Greek, I had heard pastors speak of Greek from the pulpit. They always seemed to find a way to make it boring.
I knew not one decent living ambassador for Latin or Greek.
However, there were some pretty good dead ambassadors.
If I could narrow it down to one, it would be Patrick Henry.
I have been a fan of Patrick Henry for as long as I can remember. As a child, he was, to me, a courageous freedom fighter. As I grew older, as I learned more about the world, I learned to appreciate the vision he had for America. He wanted a weak, decentralized federal government. He wanted something like the loose confederation of Cantons that make up the land of Switzerland.
Oh, had he only won! If only he and Thomas Jefferson had gotten their way! Curse you, Alexander Hamilton!
But, I digress.
As I read the writings of Patrick Henry, I was struck. I was struck by the brevity, the clarity, and the beauty of his words. He was a wordsmith. How in the world, I wondered, was he able to do it? How was he able to create such powerful sentences?
Then, one day, it hit me. Patrick Henry was able to do what he did with words, because he had studied Latin as a boy.
Latin and German are the largest rivers flowing into the English language. Anyone who reads both languages has a mighty advantage.
From this day forward, I was fully alert. I watched for clues in other writings. What other famous writers, authors, explorers, statesmen, and leaders knew Latin?
It turns out, most of them knew Latin.
C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein (He spoke multiple languages, but said Latin was his favorite.), Winston Churchill, Noah Webster, Dorothy Sayers, J. K. Rowling, Charles Dickens, The Bronte Sisters, Daniel Defoe, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had all studied Latin.
I was hooked.
At this point, I asked myself… “Why was I never taught Latin?”
I was about 24 years old at the time. I was frustrated. I had missed the boat. Oh well. Though way behind, there was no time like the present to begin.
So, I did what I thought anyone would do in my situation. I found some Latin textbooks, carped some diem, and began to teach myself Latin.
Seventeen years later… I am glad I did.